Through Her Eyes: The Composer’s Voice

International Women's Day
March 8th marks International Women’s Day, a century-old global celebration of women’s political, social, and economic achievements, and an opportunity to combat domestic violence, poverty, and other crucial issues that face women today. To help celebrate IWD we invited Sabrina Peña Young to share some of her own works and those of other leading contemporary female composers.

Finding creative ways to address issues unique to women is common in the world of composition, most notably in the work of women. Composers offer a unique perspective through their art and find ways to present diverse voices on an international scale.

Aliens and Opera

As a composer I found that music and art offer a wide platform that shouts out to the world. My World Order series address a variety of cogent issues like poverty, AIDS, and war in a striking audiovisual way. In World Order #5, a multimedia work originally composed for the Kansas State University Percussion Ensemble, alien beings happen upon a desolate planet called Earth only to be ravaged by a mutated HIV virus. In surreal shocking imagery and a disturbing electronic soundtrack, World Order #5 addresses the issues of governmental control over disease and humanity’s own mortality. American Recall is a short and snarky commentary on consumerism, and World Order #1 compares dental floss to nuclear weaponry. US vs Them, written for the Kansas State University Percussion Ensemble, borrows heavily from video game imagery and is a virtual war game. Video games, robotic voices, and computer animation interweave with music technology to tell a unique musical tale.

My most recent project, Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, combines electronic music, graphic novel imagery, and machinima in a feature film about a teen and her addict father blowing up an evil genetics factory in a post-USA dystopia. Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is unique in its production and its execution. The Libertaria cast has never met in person, and the animation team swaps files through Facebook and the Internet. The final film will be premiered in the fall at various festivals and online. An opera for the digital generation, Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is not your great grandmother’s opera!

Salsa and Sci-Fi

My music has been profoundly affected by two disparate influences: my Latino roots and science fiction. As a young girl playing percussion I enjoyed copying the complex Afro Cuban polyrhythms and vibrant beats surrounding me in South Florida. My brain, hardwired for rhythm and timbre, applied these principles later to studies in sound synthesis, electroacoustic music, and new media where the inner sci-fi nerd in me flourished.

Critics describe my work as “daunting”, “marvelously abstract”, and “robotified babbles”. Combining electronic music with contemporary composition, I create a unique musical hybrid of electroacoustic soundscapes, percussive rhythms, and surreal vocals. The Creation Oratorio, commissioned by the Millikin University Women’s Choir, covers the Biblical story of creation with a unique combination of eerie vocals, sound synthesis, and rhythmic percussion. Enigma and Innermost Thoughts of the Distorted Psyche both travel through complex computer generated soundscapes and moving visual abstraction.

Voices from Around the Globe

Composers throughout the world share their unique experience and voice through their compositions. These women continue to influence music and society through their innovative approach to the arts and their incredible unparalleled talent.

Elena Kates-Chernin: Deep Sea Myths and Mystery

Originally born in Uzbekistan composer Elena Kates-Chernin immigrated to Australia to become one of the country’s leading composers with a broad catalog that includes instrumental, theatrical, and ballet works. Prestigious dance companies throughout the world regularly perform Elena Kates-Chernin’s works. Her collaboration with choreographer Meryl Tankard Deep Sea Dreaming became part of the opening Olympic ceremonies for the 2000 Sydney games[1]. Kates-Chernin continues to enjoy a prolific career in composition with commissions worldwide, television work, and a continued love for dance.

Jennifer Higdon: Pulitzer Prize and Performance

Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s list of accomplishments includes commissions from The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Tokyo String Quartet, The Hague Philharmonic, and recent commissions from the Sante Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia for an opera based on Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Higdon’s musical work is at once mystical and beautiful, a lush journey through harmony and melody that engulfs the listener in a reverie of beauty. Each year Higdon enjoys several hundred performances of her work, which includes a wide array of orchestral and instrumental compositions.

Chen Yi: Contemporary and Traditional

Internationally renowned Chinese composer Chen Yi intertwines traditional Chinese music and contemporary classical influences in an intriguing symphony of complex melodies and sound. Speaking of the strong Asian flavor to her compositions, Chen Yi states:

“Since I speak naturally in my mother tongue, in my music there is Chinese blood, Chinese philosophy and customs. However, music is a universal language…I think that my musical language is a unique combination and natural hybrid of all influences from my background.”[2]

Listening to Chen Yi’s music, one instantly floats away to a different place of dreams and old memories full of the rich traditions of Yi’s homeland.

Kaija Saariaho: Lyricism and Electronica

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s studies at IRCAM continue to influence her compositional style, a rich combination of the classical and the computer-generated. Moving outside the traditional concert realms, Saariaho regularly delves into interactivity and multimedia. Prisma is an interactive CD-Rom experience combining stunning visuals with a musical game of Mirrors. Other works like Lonh combine voice with imagery and synthesis. Talented ensembles like the Boston Symphonic Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris perform Saariaho’s rich music internationally.[3]


In the last fifty years women have discovered their voices in composition. As social barriers continue to fall, women will continue to lend their talents to creativity and composition. And maybe someday, women composers can enjoy being simply “composers”.

Listen to more great contemporary composers:

Did we miss one you’re a fan of? Share your favorite composers in the comments below.

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